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The year 2006 marks the 150th birthday of not only L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
(1900) but also that of W. W. Denslow, the original illustrator of the
Great American Fairy Tale. Although remembered today almost solely for
that one work, Denslow made significant contributions to other areas of
American commercial art. Denslow was a character. The poet Eunice
Tietjens described him as “a delightful old reprobate who looked like a
walrus.” He married three times and divorced three times. Alcohol
finally did him in. But he produced some of the most important
children’s books of his day.
Born in Philadelphia on May 5, 1856, William Wallace Denslow began
submitting illustrations to the magazines when he turned 16. He soon
developed into an extraordinarily adaptable designer and went wherever
the work was. He roamed the countryside drawing lithographs for county
atlases in New York and Pennsylvania. He designed theater posters and
other advertising in Philadelphia and New York City. When the daily
press started using pictures, he went from paper from paper from New
York to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco and back to Chicago. He
earned his first international reputation for his newspaper, book and
magazine posters during the art poster craze of the late 1890s. He was
the first professional artist Elbert Hubbard invited to work at the
Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, New York. There he spent part of the year
drawing cartoons, posters and bookplates and decorating limited
editions. He supplemented this income by designing dozens of book covers
for Rand McNally and supplying hundreds of little pictures for
Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalogues. In almost every design could be
found his totem—a tiny seahorse.
Denslow did not think much of entering the juvenile field until he met
Baum. At the time the author was editing a trade journal for window
trimmers, but he wanted to write children’s books. His first, Mother Goose in Prose,
came out in 1897, and it was also the first book Maxfield Parrish ever
illustrated. Baum and Denslow began working on a book of nonsense verse
for boys and girls; but because both author and artist wanted the
pictures in color, no Chicago firm was willing to invest in the project.
They finally convinced the George M. Hill Co. to publish Father Goose, His Book
if Baum and Denslow paid all printing costs. To everyone’s pleasant
surprise, it became the best-selling children’s book of 1899.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 was an even more impressive
achievement. As Baum and Denslow were again responsible for all printing
costs, they created a truly enticing volume. With its twenty-four
colored plates, and two-color headpieces and tailpieces, chapter title
pages, and other delightful marginalia, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
is one of the most lavishly produced children’s books ever published in
America. Baum’s story was a challenge. Denslow admitted that he had to
“work out and invent characters, costumes, and a multitude of other
details for which there is no data—and there never can be in original
fairy tales.” And he succeeded brilliantly. Denslow’s contribution to
the book is all the more remarkable when one realizes that he drew all
of these pictures in black and white and then had the printers add the
Denslow was first and foremost a comic artist, and Baum’s whimsical
characters gave him much to play with. “To make children laugh, you must
tell them stories of action,” Denslow explained. “I tell my stories
with pictures, and I can often indicate action by expression. Action and
expression, then, are two of my mainstays, and when you add the
incongruous, you have the triad that I rely on.” His little figures are
always doing something, always acting and reacting; and Denslow made the
Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman his own. “I made twenty-five sketches of
those two monkeys before I was satisfied with them,” he explained. “I
experimented with all sorts of straw waistcoats and sheet-iron cravats
before I was satisfied.” The Cowardly Lion and Toto too demonstrate
Denslow’s skill with comparative anatomy. He further enlarged the magic
of Oz with his amusing anthropomorphized architecture.
Despite their success together, Baum and Denslow produced only one more children’s book, the pretty fairy tale Dot and Tot of Merryland
(1901). The two bitterly clashed over the 1902 musical extravaganza
based on their most famous book and went their separate ways. Denslow
left for New York where he drew an early Sunday comic strip “Billy
Bounce,” cowrote and designed another musical extravaganza The Pearl and the Pumpkin, and continued to illustrate successful children’s books. Denslow’s Mother Goose (1901), Denslow’s Night Before Christmas
(1902), and the eighteen volumes of “Denslow’s Picture Books”
(1903-1904) were all enormous sellers. With his considerable profits
from the plays and books, he bought a small island in Bermuda, built a
“castle” on it, and crowned himself King Denslow I of Denslow Island.
But all fashions fade. Denslow began drinking heavily as his career went
into a slump. He spent his last years working for a third-rate
advertising agency in New York, drawing postcards, sheet music covers,
advertising booklets, and an occasional magazine illustration. In 1915,
he unexpectedly sold a cover to the popular humor weekly Life, went on a bender with the money, caught pneumonia and died. He was only 58 years old.
The children’s book is a true collaborative art. The pictures are as
important as the texts. Lewis Carroll had his John Tenniel, A. A. Milne
had his E. H. Shephard, and L. Frank Baum had his W. W. Denslow. There
might not have been The Wonderful Wizard of Oz if not for the
illustrator. Therefore, it is only appropriate that in the year of
Baum’s sesquicentennial that we celebrate Denslow too.
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